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Here’s what happened this week in the U.K. election, from the return of Farage to tussles over tax

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Britain’s July 4 election is less than a month away. The campaign has already produced drama and disputes, even before the parties unveil their manifestos with detailed lists of promises in the coming days.

This week saw Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Labour Party rival, Keir Starmer, spar in their first televised debate, and populist firebrand Nigel Farage return to dent Conservative hopesofretaining power after 14 years in office.

Here are some things we’ve learned:

Farage is back — and the Tories are worried

Populist firebrand Nigel Farage, whose years of invective against the European Union helped push Britain out of the bloc, sent tremors through the campaign when he announced Monday that he would run for Parliament at the helm of the right-wing party Reform U.K.

Days earlier, Farage had said he wouldn’t be a candidate because it was more important to support his ally Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election in November.

Leader of Reform U.K. Nigel Farage holds a McDonalds banana milkshake in Jaywick, Essex, England, Tuesday June 4, 2024. (James Manning / PA)

Farage has failed in seven previous attempts to win a House of Commons seat but stands a good chance of ousting the Conservative incumbent in the eastern England coastal town of Clacton-on-Sea.

Reform is unlikely to win many other seats, but Farage’s return caused gloom in Conservative ranks. In 2019 the Farage-led Brexit Party, precursor to Reform, decided not to run against the Conservatives in hundreds of seats, a move that helped Boris Johnson secure an 80-seat Conservative majority.

Now Reform could siphon votes from the Tories across the country, helping Labour and the centrist Liberal Democrats win more seats.

“The Farage intervention makes a very bad election for the Conservatives potentially even worse,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “There will be plenty of seats in which there will be a decent Reform showing. … (and) they take more votes from the Conservatives than they take from Labour.”

Tussles over tax

The two men vying to become Britain’s next prime minister, Sunak and Starmer, debated on live television Tuesday. It was a tetchy, inconclusive event that saw neither land decisive blows.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends a commemorative ceremony in Ver-sur-Mer, Thursday, June 6, 2024. (Ludovic Marin / The Associated Press)

The most memorable — and contested — soundbite was Sunak’s claim that Labour’s plans would mean a 2,000 pound ($$3,500.60) tax increase for every British household. Starmer didn’t rebut the claim until Sunak had said it several times, but then dismissed it as “garbage.”

Labour claims the figure is misleading. For one thing, Sunak didn’t make clear that 2,000 pounds was the alleged increase over four years, not annually.

It’s also based on disputed figures about Labour’s plans drawn up by the Conservative Party and then submitted to the Treasury for analysis. Sunak claimed the figure had been approved by “independent Treasury officials.”

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer leaves after a D-Day national commemoration event in Portsmouth, England, Wednesday, June 5, 2024.(Kin Cheung / The Associated Press)

But it turned out that the top civil servant at the Treasury, James Bowler, had written to the Conservatives before the debate to say the figures “should not be presented as having been produced by the Civil Service.”

Labour then went on the offensive, calling the figure fake news. Starmer said Sunak had “lied deliberately” with the tax claim.

Persistent polls

The left-of-center Labour Party remains favorite to win the most seats in the 650-seat House of Commons. While major pollsters give varying figures, all show a double-digit Labour lead, with relatively little change since Sunak called the election on May 22.

Pollster Ipsos gave Labour a 20-point lead, supported by 43% of voters to the Conservatives’ 23%, in a poll released Thursday. The pollster interviewed 1,014 U.K. adults by phone, and the margin of error was three percentage points.

Cowley said that while things can change quickly in politics, “this is a government that’s tremendously unpopular, and people want rid of it.”

“Once people have decided that, it’s very difficult to turn it around,” he said.

Milkshake mess

This week also saw the return of milkshakes as an instrument of political protest.

Farage was doused with a McDonald’s shake as he left his boisterous campaign launch in Clacton. A 25-year-old local woman, Victoria Thomas Bowen, has been charged with assault.

Milkshakes became an unlikely political weapon during Britain’s acrimonious disputes over Brexit after the 2016 referendum. Farage was one of several politicians splattered with a sticky beverage in 2019. “Milkshaking” — the act of dousing public figures in milkshakes — was officially recognized by Collins Dictionary the same year.

Leader of Reform U.K. Nigel Farage walks away after a drink was thrown over him at Clacton-on-Sea, England, Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (James Manning / PA)

Farage’s political opponents stressed that the sticky attack was no laughing matter in a polarized political atmosphere where threats against politicians are growing. Two British lawmakers, Jo Cox and David Amess, have been murdered in the past decade while meeting constituents.

Labour’s law-and-order spokesperson Yvette Cooper said the dousing was a “disgraceful assault on Nigel Farage.”

“Completely unacceptable and wrong. No one should face intimidation or assault in an election campaign,” she wrote on social network X, formerly known as Twitter.

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